The first thing I laid eyes on when I got off the metro in Shanghai was the largest Uniqlo store that I had ever seen. The large red logo of the Japanese fashion brand was flashing brightly above the busy shopping street right in the middle of the French Concession and people and cars rushed by in a frenzy, carried by a sense of urgency.
We walked to our hotel along streets that were lined with beautiful plane trees and occasionally someone trying to sell fake Michael Kors bags would call from the side. The sleek luxury stores that occupied most of the buildings and the huge billboards on which airbrushed models advertised the wonders of new beauty products seemed to stand in harsh juxtaposition to the scenes on the streets, but it all seamlessly fitted together in one whole picture and I felt like I had simultaneously landed on another planet and finally arrived where I had always been meant to be.
When you walk through the streets of Shanghai, there is no doubt that you are in China. It’s not the China of larges squares and monuments that you would encounter in Beijing and it’s not the China of the ancient temples and high mountains that you might think of when you think of Disney’s Mulan, but it’s Chinese through and through anyway in the smells and noises and crowds that flock through the city center. Shanghai paints a picture of a China that is cosmopolitan and worldy, a picture that defies the clichés that surround travel in this vast and to many of us so foreign country and I found it impossible to not fall in love with this city at first sight.
Shanghai has a distinct European feel that distinguishes it from other Chinese cities: From the Mid-1800s to the 1940s, parts of the city were conceded to foreign powers as settlements and while many remnants of that time have been torn down in the decades since, there are still many traces that reveal Shanghai’s colonial past. The urban architecture is so unexpected that there are moment when you almost forget that you are in Asia, but it only ever takes another look for you to realize that you are in China indeed.
East Nanjing Road & The Bund
When we headed out in the evening, our feet automatically lead us to East Nanjing Road, Shanghai's most infamous shopping street. East Nanjing Road is like the Times Square or Picadilly Circus of Shanghai and as the sky turned from grey to dark blue and the neon lights seemed to get brighter and brighter, I found myself staring at one of the most colorful scenes I had ever witnessed and was immediately mesmerized by the energy that I felt pulsing through the air: After a week in the mountains of Sichuan, Shanghai had quickly pulled me into a whole different world and I loved every second of it.
By the time we had walked the length of East Nanjing Road and reached the Bund, it was pitch black. The Bund is a street that lines the Shanghai waterfront with grand Artdeco buildings that were constructed in the early 20th century when Shanghai stood under the heavy influence of European powers and at night, when the buildings are illuminated in golden light and a view over the broad Huangpu River unveils the iconic Shanghai skyline, I can’t imagine a better place to be. I knew then that Shanghai had become one of those places that I would want to return to again and again.
Daytime in Shanghai
Our first evening in Shanghai had been so magical that daytime in Shanghai seemed a little lackluster at first. When I woke up in the morning, the city was enveloped in a thick blanket of grey clouds – was it smog or the weather? – and the color that had been so flamboyant in the evening seemed to have disappeared. It also didn’t help that I had a day of shopping ahead of me: I was set to start an internship at a law firm as soon as I would arrive back in Germany, but since my closet was severely under-equipped for this kind of occasion I had planned to pick up some clothes Shanghai.
I don’t really like to go shopping - especially in department stores that are so giant that they may never spit you out again – but since Shanghai is one of the most fashionable cities in Asia, I figured it couldn’t be all that hard to quickly find some decent business clothes. I don’t know where Chinese business women buy their clothes – probably either at Armani or custom-tailored at one of the markets – but when I had yet to see a basic white button-down after the second mall, I started to doubt my resolve.
It was only in the last department store that I was willing to waste vacation time on – at this point I really couldn’t be bothered anymore – that I finally stumbled over a small Japanese brand that had a whole range of business clothes that were both functional and pretty and I could have hugged the whole world.
My mother communicated between me and the saleswoman who gave me quick once-over before rushing to the back to get the sizes she thought I needed and an hour later, I immersed with my first set of grown-up clothes. But when I later found out that I was wearing the second to largest size in pretty much all of the clothes of this brand – and I’m not exactly tall and I like to think that I’m reasonably slim – I decided that Tokyo was probably not going to be the next place where I should go to buy clothes.
Soong Ching-Ling's Former Residence
But thankfully, we didn’t spend all of our time in the claws of the malls of Shanghai and were soon off to see some of the sights that form the more touristy parts of the city: On our second day in Shanghai, we visited the former residence of Soong Ching-Ling in the far east of the city. I have embarassingly little profound knowledge of Chinese history, but Soong Ching-Ling and her two sisters (and their respective husbands) were some of the most important and influential figures in Chinese politics of the early 20th century, a time period that can be described as complicated at best.
Soong Ching-Ling was the wife of Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China and the founder of the Kuomintang Party, which would later become the rival the Communist Party during the Chinese Civil War. Her husband passed away in 1925 and Soong Ching-Ling eventually became estranged from the Kuomintang who she felt had betrayed her husband’s legacy and when the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan, she opted to stay behind on the mainland where she became one of the most revered women in the People’s Republic.
I admittedly had never really heard of Soong Ching-Ling before visiting and spent a good chunk of our time at her former residence wondering who exactly she was and what exactly had been her political alignments – information was a bit sparse – but most of all, the visit made me realize just how far removed from part of my heritage I was both in knowledge and cultural understanding. This realization was a bit unnerving and left me with a certain sense of both rootlessness and self-discovery, but despite the questions that I had for myself, it was interesting to learn a bit more about Chinese history.
The Old Town & Yuyuan Gardens
Things got less complicated on a personal level when we visited the Yuyuan Gardens in the Old Town of Shanghai. The Old Town of Shanghai looks more like an amusement park than an authentic piece of Old China and the alleys are full with tacky tourist stores, but somehow it’s still fun and charming.
One thing you definitely need to do when you’re in the Old Town is line up at Nanxiang Mantou for xialongbao. Xiaolongbao are dumplings filled with pork and broth which makes for a delicious combination of flavors and textures and while this particular place is super busy and touristy and some insist that the best soup dumplings in Shanghai are made elsewhere, it's a classic for a reason and I gobbled down my tasty little parcels so fast that I didn't even think about taking a picture of them. (Here’s one from Singapore to make up for it, though!)
The touristy Old Town may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but – apart from the dumplings – there is one other sight that you’d be crazy to miss when you’re in Shanghai: The Yuyuan Gardens. Located right in the middle of the Old Town, the Yuyuan Gardens are a bit of a sanctuary from the chaos and crowds and while the Gardens can apparently get pretty crowded on the weekends according to Lonely Planet, they were calm and peaceful when we visited and offered a perfect respite from the big city. I especially loved seeing the way nature and man-made buildings were interwoven with each other and the pink blooms of the trees definitely appealed to my girly side.
If you're intimidated by the notion of traveling to China, then I can think of no better place for a first visit then Shanghai. Shanghai is beautiful and exciting and different and while it can be chaotic and stressful, it does so in a way that is captivating rather than off-putting. I know I will be back one day!
Have you been to Shanghai before? Would you like to visit China one day?